The Perils of Perfectionism

Perfectionism can be described as the persistent need or desire to accomplish things perfectly, according to a standard that one sets for oneself. It is considered a positive virtue often in our culture. We encourage students to strive for their best and athletes have grueling practice sessions in order to reach their goals. The desire to do well is a good thing but one has to ask whether an obsession with perfectionism actually ends up being counterproductive. We need to distinguish between aiming to do well which is what high achievers tend to do, and being obsessed with nothing but perfection, a standard too high to reach and humanly impossible to achieve.

In a society where individuals are so often judged based on what they are capable of achieving and what position they hold, it is tempting to base all our worth on our ability to do something flawlessly. The temptation is greater for certain personality types who are naturally prone to work harder and be ambitious. Perfectionism has a positive side which involves healthy practices like setting goals for oneself, attempting to do better, and to learn and grow more. The negative side includes feelings of unworthiness, fear of failure, anxiety, insecurity, and debilitating stress. A healthy balance of both, and a need to overcome an obsession with being perfect is essential to maintain mental and physical health.

man in black suit achieved an accomplishment
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on

Perfectionism causes an individual to set standards for himself that he might not be able to keep. This can lead to him becoming anxious or depressed. It will affect his relationship with others, he might consider asking for help a sign of weakness, and he might develop severe trust issues since he tends to believe others will not do as good a job as him; he will think that unless he carries out a task, it won’t be perfect. This often leads to exhaustion and severe stress. A perfectionist tends to obsess over details that might not be that important, and their fear of failure might lead them to not engage in many opportunities. They usually tend to procrastinate chronically, and they might also end up holding others to impossible standards as well. Perfectionists are overly critical about themselves and worry about whether they are doing things right. As opposed to high achievers who will be satisfied with having given their best, perfectionists will need to have done everything perfectly regardless of how equipped they are to do the activity. Unrealistic standards and unnecessary self-criticism are detrimental to our mental health and our ability to do work well. It also makes us defensive and anxious about all criticism.

Understanding the signs of perfectionism and trying to undo it is important for every individual who struggles with this issue. Self-affirmation and acceptance can be one of the first steps towards a better and healthier approach to work. A work ethic that is bent on having everything perfect only destroys rather than builds. Acknowledge that you are not perfect and that you are bound to make mistakes. Delegate tasks and trust others when you are overburdened. Set goals that are achievable and be kind to yourself. Don’t ruminate over a problem excessively but learn to let go and move on. If you find yourself going on a thought spiral, find a distraction that will break that thought cycle: take a nap, do a mundane task, phone a friend. Remember to let yourself breathe and be human, to aim for excellence but not perfection.

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